Originally published in The Critic by David Scullion https://thecritic.co.uk/the-government-split-over-free-trade/
The Government is committed to signing Free Trade deals. The Conservative Party's 2019 manifesto said as much, and added: "Our trade deals will not only be free but fair". The UK has just started trade talks with the United States and is already in talks with Canada and Mexico. Leaving the EU Customs Union, which prevented the UK from making its own trade deals, was a key plank of the 2016 Brexit campaign. But within the Cabinet there is a split.
And on Wednesday when the Agriculture Bill comes back to the House of Commons laden with amendments which could derail the ability for the UK to strike trade deals, it seems likely that some in cabinet will be cheering them to succeed.
Simon Hoare and Neil Parish – both Tory MPs – have tabled very similar additions to the bill. The amendments, which seem harmless enough at first glance, aim to stop any agricultural goods under a trade agreement from being imported if they were made with lower standards than the UK has. Keir Starmer has also tabled a similar amendment which would have the same effect. And they have a large amount of support: In March 45 MPs signed a letter organised by Neil Parish calling on the International Trade Secretary Liz Truss to ensure the UK ensures 'equivalent standards' with other countries on agriculture.
But the amendments go far beyond the request of the letter and beyond what any normal Free Trade Agreement asks for. In trade deals under the WTO countries are allowed to request that imported goods must be of a high quality, but not to specify how the goods are specifically made or grown. The request made on other states would be similar to the EU's demand for 'dynamic alignment' – whereby the UK would have been forced to change its laws to match the EU's in real time, in order to maintain access to the EU market. No other country with any desire to export anything agricultural is likely to accept this.
On the backbenches former DEFRA Minister Owen Paterson is strongly in favour of a Free Trade Agreement with the United States which, far from harming it, says would be great for British agriculture. Writing for the Farmer's Guardian he said expanded markets for UK agriculture would bring "enormous opportunities", citing the fact that the UK would have the freedom to use cutting-edge techniques and our farmers could make more money selling the parts of animals which British consumers do not eat – but which are delicacies elsewhere. Others within the Free Trade wing of the Tory party likewise see these amendments as an existential threat to the vision of a UK outside of the EU, able to exert influence through its trading relations with similarly minded countries. Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith says the amendments are a coded attempt to kill off a US trade deal and added: "I absolutely do not see any support for this whatsoever. It would be a complete nightmare to legislate for the negotiations and would completely tie the hands of our negotiators."
Former Trade Minister Dr Liam Fox has written a piece on ConHome this morning explaining how the agriculture amendments could kill off free trade deals, and trade expert Shanker Singham has explained how they break WTO rules. Government Ministers have been trying to reassure backbenchers that the amendments have little support but some front-benchers are privately very worried. Pro-FTA Ministers are concerned that the protectionist parliamentary farming lobby has the ear of some of their Cabinet colleagues who do not share the Government's desire for unfettered trade.
George Eustice worked for nine years on his family's Fruit Farm near Connor Downs and was part of the parliamentary farming lobby until he was made DEFRA minister in February. Despite voting for Brexit in 2016, Eustice has been keen on the UK remaining inside the EEA which would keep the UK heavily involved in most aspects of EU law except for farming and fishing. Last year as a backbencher, Eustice tabled an amendment to the old Agriculture Bill (which never became law) designed to kill off a US trade deal by blocking the import of so-called 'chlorinated chicken'. The amendment prohibited anyone in the UK selling meat that had been cleaned with anything other than drinking water.
One source inside the farming lobby told me Eustice has been more sympathetic to their cause than his predecessor, Theresa Villiers (who actually signed Parish's letter to Liz Truss raising concerns about food imports.) But the anti-free trade bloc inside Government is comfortably larger than just Eustice and other members of the much-reduced professional agriculture lobby (though note that Mark Spencer, the chief whip, is a pig farmer). One of the DEFRA Secretary's junior ministers, Zac Goldsmith, is a committed ecologist and sometime owner of a 543-acre organic farm that was registered as making a loss. Real belief motivates some of the opponents of an unfettered US trade deal.
As well as having his own reasons for wanting to block a free trade deal, one Tory MP suggested to me Eustice was "still being run by Michael Gove". As fisheries Minister, Eustice was deputy to Gove, a man who became an advocate of a "Green Brexit' and, in the words of one senior Tory, "went to pay homage to that ghastly schoolgirl". Theresa May declined to meet Greta Thunberg when she came to Westminster last year but Mr. Gove, whilst DEFRA Secretary, admitted to feeling "responsibility and guilt" after listening to the Swedish environmental activist who advocates abandoning economic growth.
It's hard to overstate the anger that many ERG MPs feel towards Michael Gove and their willingness to believe he is at the heart of a plot to steer Britain away from a free-trading future towards a protectionist and EU-centric trading policy. One senior Conservative is convinced that as the Minister responsible for No Deal planning, Gove has been deliberately reducing UK preparedness in order to keep the UK in the EU's orbit.
Another told me: "Gove rebrands himself constantly and nobody knows what he believes. He's not even a soft-[euro]sceptic anymore". None of the people I asked said they knew what Michael Gove's real views were on anything. In July 2018 Michael Gove did not resign from the Government along with fellow Cabinet Brexiteers David Davis and Boris Johnson when Theresa May unveiled her Chequers plan – something Brexiteers have not forgotten. He voted for her Brexit deal every time it was put to Parliament and at the time his former Spads made frequent and loud attempts to defend the deal, one of whom has now joined him back in government. Although perhaps not a smoking gun, Mr. Gove has form when it comes to supporting astroturf campaigns to put pressure on his own side.
During the EU Withdrawal Bill an amendment was signed by, amongst others, Conservative peers Lord Deben and Lord Inglewood which would require the government to set up a UK Green Quango to replace the EU's environmental watchdog. When it was suggested to the Tory peers that their actions were unhelpful to the government, they replied that they had no interest one way or the other, but that they were only doing what Mr. Gove had asked.
"One thing is sure about Michael Gove – he is permanently on manoeuvres" says one Tory MP.